Gov. Brian Sandoval led a Republican landslide in Nevada on Nov. 4.
At the risk of sounding obvious, the 2014 midterm election cycle proved to be a pretty universal disappointment for Democrats.
At the top of the ticket, the loss of the Senate, and roughly a dozen House seats, puts the Republicans in fairly firm control of the U.S. Congress heading into 2015. But that was only the tip of a deep and wide electoral iceberg, which included the loss of several closely contested gubernatorial elections, and a disaster at the state legislative level.
One could build a credible argument that two states were the epicenter of the Democratic doldrums in 2014.
In the eastern half of the United States, it was West Virginia. Not only did the Democrats surrender an open U.S. Senate seat by north of 20 points, and lose an incumbent member of the House with nearly four decades in office, but they also lost control of both chambers of the state legislature. This might not seem like a huge deal, until one realizes that the Democrats held a 24-10 advantage in the state Senate prior to the election, and lost eight seats (one due to a post-election party switch) to fall into the minority.
In the western half of the nation, the story, without question, had to be Nevada. The irony is that the state was scarcely a story going into November. Its Republican governor was considered an absolutely safe bet for re-election, there was no U.S. Senate seat at stake, and once the prospects for a competitive contest in the swingy 3rd district in the U.S. House dimmed, it appeared that the House delegation was going to be unchanged.
And, then ... electoral disaster for the Democrats. In his traditional pre-election predictions, Nevada sage Jon Ralston predicted a very ugly election night for the Democrats. It was worse than even he projected. They not only lost the state Senate, but also lost the state Assembly, which nearly no one had in play. And freshman Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford wound up losing his Vegas-area House seat (which few saw as competitive until mid-to-late-October) to Republican assemblyman Cresent Hardy. And, in the litany of statewide races, it was a total wipeout. The ultimate indignity: Democratic rising star Ross Miller, the son of former Gov. Bob Miller, lost his bid for attorney general to Adam Laxalt, whose candidacy was so flawed more than a half dozen of his own relatives endorsed Miller.
It was ugly, but it was also instructive. Follow me below the fold for some lessons from this enormous batch of electoral suckage.
1. Yes, Democratic turnout was an issue in the 2014 election cycle.
One of the more intriguing post-election debates was the seeming insistence on the part of some in the pundit community that poor base turnout in the election was not a key to Democratic underperformance. I guess the goal was to forward the theory that 2014 is explained solely by Republican awesome-ness. But plenty of evidence suggests that turnout played a role (and in some corners, not an insignificant one) in what we saw on the 4th of November.
Without question, that turnout disparity played a role in what happened in Nevada.
The alarm bells there rang early. Jon Ralston sounded them on day one of early voting, and it simply never got better for the blue team. Democrats lagged behind the Republicans in the early vote throughout, finishing the period trailing the Republicans by a 45-37 margin. In a state where there are 62,000 more active Democratic voters than Republicans, this was an early sign of impending disaster.
Turnout was a catastrophe, even by midterm voting standards. In 2014, a total of 552,000 voters cast a vote in the Silver State. In 2010, despite having roughly 93,000 fewer registered voters, 723,000 voters showed up. The numbers were stunning.
So, aside from the early vote data described above, how is this evidence of a Democratic base voter issue?
The answer lies in Clark County. The state's most populous county, housing the metropolis of Las Vegas, is also the essential ingredient in any Democratic victory in Nevada. Aside from tiny Mineral County (which leans conservative, despite its voter registration), Clark County is the only county in Nevada with a Democratic voter registration edge.
That edge, as it happens, is massive. Going into the election, Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Clark County by just over 106,000 active voters. But in early voting, the Democrats only edged the GOP by a mere 1,200 votes.
Therein, in no small part, lay the landslide.
Consider the following chart, which shows the percentage of active registered voters who cast a ballot on election day (data used for this chart is here:
1. Eureka County—79.8 percent
2. Storey County—78.3 percent
3. Humboldt County—69.0 percent
4. Pershing County—68.6 percent
5. Esmeralda County—65.9 percent
6. Lander County—65.0 percent
7. White Pine County—63.6 percent
8. Carson City (Capital)—62.3 percent
9. Douglas County—61.9 percent
10. Churchill County—61.2 percent
11. Lincoln County—60.4 percent
12. Elko County—55.6 percent
13. Mineral County—52.1 percent
14. Washoe County—51.6 percent
15. Nye County—51.4 percent
16. Lyon County—47.5 percent
17. Clark County—41.5 percent
Astute political junkies will argue that this should not be seen as unusual: Urban counties always struggle with turnout compared with their rural counterparts, they will say. Except, in Nevada, this is an unusually bad performance when examined through the lens of recent history. In 2010, the last midterm election, not only was Clark County not
in last place in turnout among the counties, but it was fairly close to the median county performance. If you look at 2014, Clark's turnout came out 20.4 percent behind the median county performance. (Douglas County was that median.) In 2010, Clark (at 63.5 percent turnout) was just 8.4 percent behind the median county performance.
And, to play into the presidential/midterm turnout meme: in 2012, Clark ranked eighth in turnout among the counties, with more than 81 percent of their county's voters heading to the polls.
When official results are tallied, and we get more granular data from precincts and smaller electoral districts, one of the really interesting questions will be answered by examining the degree to which Democratic performance tanked in areas where said performance was essential to victory.
2. You have to fight at the top of the ticket. No one shows up just to vote for the downballot offices.
This, above all else, might've been the most frustrating aspect of the Democratic electoral beatdown in Nevada. And we saw it coming for months.
The roots are eminently understandable—Nevada's Republican governor, Brian Sandoval, had emerged from his first term with solid popularity, and seemed a lock for re-election. As a result, most of the Democratic power players elected to keep their powder dry, either running for lesser statewide offices or remaining in the legislature. It became clear that the goal for Democrats was to compete in 2018, when Sandoval will not be a factor.
This left a field of Some Dudes to compete for the top spot on the Democratic ticket, with eminently more bankable names opting for lesser offices. The end result? The eventual Democratic nominee, Bob Goodman, a former staffer for Democratic Gov. Mike O'Callaghan in the 1970s, actually lost the Democratic primary to that unique Nevada option: None of the Above. There may not have been a large number of Democrats who bothered to show up in that primary (total turnout was only about 72,000, or roughly 15 percent of registered Democrats), but they clearly demonstrated how dissatisfied they were with their options.
Two of the bigger Democratic figures were among those who elected to take their chances with more bankable downballot races. But with nothing propelling the party at the top of the ticket? It became a struggle. Democratic state Treasurer Kate Marshall failed in her effort to move over to the secretary of state's office, losing to state legislator Barbara Cegavske by a 50-46 margin. And, most notably (and shockingly), the aforementioned Ross Miller—who had easily won the election as secretary of state even in difficult 2010 (beating Republican Rob Lauer 53-37)—lost to Republican Adam Laxalt by 4,700 votes.
The difference for Democrats has to be, in part, owed to the momentum at the top of the ballot. In 2010, it was Harry Reid's efforts to save his U.S. Senate seat that drove Democrats to the polls. In 2008 and 2012, of course, it was Barack Obama driving the Democratic turnout. Even in 2006, Democrats had Dina Titus locked in a tossup with embattled GOP Gov. Jim Gibbons getting voters out to the polls. Absent a serious campaign effort for governor, Democrats had to rely on voters caring enough about the attorney general's office to propel voters to the polls. Clearly, they didn't.
3. In wave elections, nobody is "unelectable".
Even as the early vote totals came in and looked distressing for Democrats, it still seemed difficult to believe that NV-04 looked like a loss for Democrats. After all, Democratic Rep. Steve Horsford had not only survived a well-funded, high-profile open-seat race with Republican Danny Tarkanian in 2012, he had done so rather handily, winning by more than 19,000 votes.
What's more: Horsford's challenger, Republican state assemblyman Cresent Hardy, was seen as a second-tier Republican prospect at best. Going into the final weeks of the election, Hardy had only raised a total of $266,000, which put him toward the bottom of the fundraising charts of candidates (of either party) running in even marginally competitive races around the country. Going into mid-October, not only had Hardy spent modestly, Rep. Horsford also had a 6-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage.
However, elections can swing very late in a campaign, and those early vote totals got enough attention that advocates for both parties sensed a potential Republican upset. The late money came in, but too late to save Horsford.
In wave elections (which appear to be, for whatever reason, becoming more common in recent cycles), this is not uncommon. Just a little further west, in California's 9th district, Democrat Jerry McNerney only narrowly defeated Republican Tony Amador, a candidate who had spent all of ... um ... $49,000 heading into the campaign's final weeks. That might have led McNerney into a false sense of security. He spent a relatively modest amount (a mistake shared by several colleagues who suffered unexpected challenges for their seats), and still had more than $363,000 on hand leading into Election Day.
But, at one point in the congressional election game, a challenger who had spent so little on his/her race would be a non-starter. Hell, the lowest amount of money spent on a competitive winning congressional race in the past 20 years was nearly six times what Amador dropped on his race. Carol Shea-Porter who spent $293,000 in her first victory in 2006.
Part of this might be owed to natural terrain. Campaigns may very well matter less than simple voter preferences as time goes on. Even in a presidential election year, Mitt Romney did semi-respectably in Nevada's 4th district (where he got 44 percent), and the California 9th (where he got 40 percent). When the demographic makeup of the district is retrofitted for midterm election turnout (a Democratic danger that was clearly magnified this cycle, in these two districts and nationwide), these come perilously close to tossups. And, if Hardy and Amador prove nothing else, the relative strength of the challenger doesn't seem to matter very much.
Could straight ticket voting, regardless of individual candidate strengths and weaknesses, be making a comeback? That will be another interesting question to consider as the mass of 2014 election data comes across our desks in the coming months.